GENEVA – She became a refugee when the situation in her native Iraq deteriorated to the point that she and her family felt unsafe, Aya Abdullah told the United Nations’ first Global Refugee Forum in Geneva on Tuesday. She fled Iraq for Syria, where Abdullah was officially registered with the UN as a refugee and then moved on to Turkey.
At age 14, nobody wants to feel that all the doors are closing for them, Abdullah shared with her audience in Geneva. In packing to flee her homeland, she threw in her textbooks because she realized the importance of education. Today she is a B.A. student in international relations and communications at Webster College in Geneva.
As inspiring as Abdullah’s story may be, when she addressed the delegates on Tuesday, it was impossible to avoid feeling that her story is far from representative of the plight of most of those caught up in the growing global refugee crisis. She is among just 3 percent of the world’s 26 million refugees who have managed to gain access to a higher education.
To a large degree, the main message conveyed on the second day of the forum on Tuesday was that if the international community doesn’t mobilize to help the world’s 70 million displaced people who have remained in their home countries, and the 26 million refugees who have fled their homelands, their prospects for a life similar to that of Abdullah will diminish.
The conference proceedings included commitments to take in refugees and pledges of hundreds of millions of dollars in donations by the German foreign minister, the president of Costa Rica, the Pakistani prime minister and the deputy prime minister of Ethiopia, but UN officials repeated over and over that the international community has to take responsibility for the refugees reaching their borders. The officials also presented pessimistic predictions when it comes to the hope that the number of refugees and displaced populations will be reduced.
UN Secretary General António Guterres, who served for a decade as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told the delegates: “It is necessary that all countries assume their responsibilities. … The growth in displacement is outpacing the rate at which solutions are being found.”
“When I started in 2005 as High Commissioner for Refugees, there were 38 million people displaced in the world and we were helping one million people go back home every year,” Guterres remarked.
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“And for many of our colleagues, there was a [sense] that soon UNHCR would have no reason to exist anymore,” the secretary general noted. “Unfortunately, things have changed quite dramatically. Global forced displacement has been rising steadily in recent years. Today, more than 70 million people are forcibly displaced – double the level of 20 years ago.”
When it comes to addressing the problem, Guterres appealed for international solidarity.
“It is a moment to build a more equitable response to refugee crises through a sharing of responsibility. Humankind came together to address many huge refugee challenges across the 20th century; we should be able to do the same in the 21st. This is not an unmanageable situation,” he said. The same message was even more bluntly delivered by Filippo Grandi, the current UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who admitted in response to questions from the press that in contrast to the success of fundraising efforts, it was difficult to get Western countries to commit to accepting specific numbers of refugees.
“We had a pledging conference a few days ago in which actually donors pledged more than a billion dollars to UNHCR programs, so that continues,” Grandi said, but he added: “Every year, only a few tens of thousands of refugees get resettled… These numbers are not growing.”
In 2016, Western countries committed to resettle 163,000 refugees; in 2020 that figure is expected to drop to 70,000, after President Donald Trump decided in September to cut the number of refugees the United States resettles by almost half, to 18,000.
Despite the difficulty that the UNHCR has had in finding countries to resettle refugees, in 2018, it offered to arrange the resettlement in other Western countries of 16,000 asylum seekers living in Israel. After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came under domestic criticism over other details of the plan, Israel backtracked and declined the offer.
The keynote speaker and guest of honor at the forum was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In somewhat of a departure from the tone taken by UN officials, the Turkish president called for the rapid resettlement of a million Syrian refugees in northern Syria. He also reiterated his position that the establishment of a safe zone is crucial if the repatriation of 3.7 million Syrians who fled to Turkey – the world’s largest population of refugees – is to get under way.
Erdogan said more than 600,000 should voluntarily join around 371,000 already in a “peace zone” in northern Syria from which Turkey drove Kurdish militia. “I think the resettlement can easily reach 1 million in a very short period of time,” he added.
The plan met with scepticism from Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, who said that while Turkey was far ahead in terms of hosting refugees, resettling Arab refugees in areas previously populated by Kurds was wrong. “I hope this will not happen, really. It shouldn’t happen,” Egeland told Reuters.
Turkey has said it expected the Syrian Kurdish refugees it hosts to be the first to return to the area between the border towns of Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad.
As Erdogan spoke, a demonstration by Kurds was held in Geneva protesting his presence.
In a thinly veiled swipe at the United States, which moved quickly to guard Syrian oil fields after the retreat of Islamic State, Erdogan said: “Unfortunately the efforts that were made to protect the oil fields were not mobilized for the safety and security of the children in Syria.”
On the sidelines of the Geneva conference, dozens of discussions were held about violence, education and poverty, including one led by female refugees. Of the 3,000 participants at the conference, some 80 were refugees themselves.
The women spoke about the violence, including rape, which they experienced and asked to be included in solutions to the refugee situation rather than simply being viewed as passive victims. The World Health Organization estimates that one in five refugee women and children has experienced sexual violence.
Hafsar Tameesuddin, a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar who is now living in New Zealand, said she believes “women and girls are strong enough to contribute to their communities. ... They need to be given a voice in helping them defend themselves,” she said, adding that finding refuge in another country does not assure a refugee’s safety. She underlined the need for safe spaces, psycho-social therapy and approaches to stopping the violence.
Reuters contributed to this report.